Having escaped quickly from the baths, I didn’t get the chance to ask Cornelius about the tournament details.
Rather than separating magic talent and physical prowess, like done in the past, the new tournament would allow for competitors of any specialty to fight at the peak of their abilities. In battle, it was difficult to know what to expect, so the combination of techniques using might and magic added another layer of complexity.
As a result, the two separate tournaments had combined into one giant competition that would yield a champion of unquestionable superiority. The one who stood on top would hold a unique place in the Kingdom of Sistina, a position to be coveted by many. As such, more entrants than ever before raced to the newly built coliseum to test their skills.
However, that didn’t explain why ‘I’ had to be in the middle of the battlefield…
The ground shook with explosions and the crashes of various magic. Wherever I looked, a storm of attacks littered the area, accompanied by cries of defeat as people were knocked around like ragdolls. While there was an unspoken vow not to kill your opponent, people tended to get a bit overboard in their attacks. Even still, a battle royale to weed out the contestants as a preliminary round felt quite dreadful.
Fortunately, barriers were erected to contain any stray attacks that could deflect towards the crowds, which had packed themselves full in the viewing areas around the coliseum. And for those who had been rendered incapacitated, a speedy servant named Ludmila quickly entered the ring from a small hole and hoisted them to the recovery area, where healers could treat their wounds.
And no, I wasn’t inside as some sort of referee…
A flame-enhanced blade sliced toward my side, obviously aimed at me.
“I, Cervantes, Lord of Valencia, shall be your opponent!” a blond, debonair swordsman yelled.
Where had I seen him before? There seemed to be some hearty cheering from the crowd as he charged at me.
With a swing of my knife, I parried it, sending a downward chop with my free hand at the fully-armored knight. Though it seemed like the equipment boasted considerable defense, a stroke of mana bypassed the sturdy protection and shocked the man inside, causing his body to go limp. Attacking a person’s mana core was far too overpowered.
“Once again, I have cut something meaningless…” At this point, spouting off dumb quotes was all that was keeping me from losing it. That was probably the tenth person I had downed with cringey victory remarks so far.
After all, Cornelius had entered me as a competitor in this tournament.
“Wait! Why in blazes do I have to fight in such a thing?!” I yelled at the time. I could see no merit in competing.
Cornelius turned and gave me a thin smile, an expression that questioned whether I truly understood my position.
“Sir Claude, how do you think the nobles feel about a man of your standing being the Chancellor?”
“Well, I, uh…”
“Particularly since you held an occupation unsuitable for that of combat or military strategy… You may be a convincingly powerful Electi, but what have you done in their eyes to show that you are worthy to stand next to the Queen? Not everyone was there to see your accomplishments, after all.”
I bit my lip. Those who had seen my struggles had primarily been my closest friends, along with a few of their strongest supporters. Certainly, it would be a surprise to many others for such a person to be ‘leading’ them.
“Nobles are a fickle lot. Though they openly support the crown and those who possess it, they hold their tongue in public and only whisper their conspiracies in private.” Cornelius placed a hand on my shoulder. “And you don’t want to fuel their suspicions that their Queen played favorites, do you not?”
I ground my teeth at that. In order to prove my worth, a public stage to demonstrate my abilities was necessary to convince them that I belonged. To begin with, that had been the entire purpose of reviving the tournament at this time – a power play by Cornelius to show me off.
I winced at recalling such a silly plan. It wasn’t like I had the confidence to win the thing, but so far, I was managing.
Several more self-confident fighters and magicians approached, trying for a coordinated attack to bring down the ‘esteemed Chancellor’. With a sigh, I extended the mana flowing into my knife into a large sword.
“Soul Rending Strike – Chef-no-Tachi!”
With a quick swing, I cried out the name of my attack. Those in range essentially passed out on their feet due to instantaneous mana exhaustion.
Just to give it a bit of Cornelius’s suggested theatrics, I followed up with another terrible quote that made me seem like a chuunibyou.
“My ‘Phantom Blade’ passes through all! Behind the power of the Chancellor!” The cry echoed across the field as the passed-out bodies finally toppled to the ground with a ‘thunk’.
The cheering crowd in the distance erupted from the aftermath of my one-hit knockout. At least, they were enjoying it. Cornelius told me to be flashy, but I couldn’t help but feel like a dork..
What started as a massive ring of 30 competitors had reduced to a mere handful. Since the tournament had attracted an incredible number of participants, this was the only efficient way to narrow down the field. As such, there were several preliminary rounds, in which only the final four standing would advance to the 1-on-1 duels. Cornelius had taken care to place only 1 or 2 seeded contestants in each group.
I looked over to Saki, who was in the opposite corner. She had ended up in the same preliminary round as me. However, most of the competition had raced over to my end to take on who they considered to be the ‘easier’ of the two. As a result, I took on the brunt of the opposition at first. When people simply dropped like flies, many turned back toward the girl holding dual mallets.
However, those that approached Saki didn’t have it any easier. Her foes had been smashed into the barrier, and in some cases, hard enough to momentarily cling to it, like a bug on a windshield. Both sides of the ring gave off a sense of impending doom, making them regret taking us lightly.
By the time only 4 were left standing, Saki and I looked relatively unscathed, while the other two, people who wore the Magic Knight crest but unfamiliar to me, looked like they had barely clung on. The last few fights happened right in the middle to avoid the ‘corners of doom’.
I glanced over to the sidelines as I stepped off the ring, where Roderick and Marquis Deggendorf were standing after they had advanced through their preliminary round. The current bout was just the second of them so far. There were two more to go.
As the next batch of combatants stepped up to the ring, the sight of a mask piqued my curiosity. Shuffling through the crowd, the coattails of a butler outfit swayed in the wind.
“Oh, look. It’s the return of Butler Mask. These people are so screwed-“
Just then, I caught sight of another person with a mask on. Wearing a fighting gi that was uncommon in this nation, there was no doubt in my mind as to who decided to drop in randomly. The stance that I sparred against was another dead giveaway.
Though the other fighters looked all around at their competition, the two masked ones squared off, solely focusing on each other. It was like none of the others mattered to them at all.
“I, Juggler Mask, will show everyone who is the dominant one here!”
“So you say. Butler Mask yields to no one.”
At the signal, Juggler Mask pounced forward, arms chambered to launch a flurry of strikes. Meanwhile, Butler Mask took a few steps forward, drawing his sword from its scabbard.
As fist and sword collided, a shockwave of mana erupted from the clash, sending several to the walls of the barrier that were placed just outside of the arena and out of bounds. These two veteran fighters launched flurry after flurry of strikes, hoping to sneak into the crevices of each other’s guard.
While the maelstrom of high-level mana waves took over the center stage, the others took heed to avoid it, keeping their own battles as far as possible lest they be caught up in the storm. However, who could be bothered to pay attention to them while the stars of the round shined brightly in the center?
Occasionally, some of the combatants ended up being forced too close to the fierce engagement, causing a stray blow from the masked fighters to knock them flat on the ground. In addition, mana strikes flew from their bodies and ricocheted off every surface, sending them scattering throughout the rest of the arena, creating even more hazards to avoid.
The third preliminary round became a battle of who could best weather against the never-ending storm of attacks wrecking the battlefield. After ten minutes, only two others remained standing, albeit with much difficulty. Their eyes looked like they had lived through stormy seas, only to be shipwrecked on a deserted island. For one of them though, it was hard to tell if his gloomy expression was just part of his personality.
Despite the signal being given to stop, the two masked fighters continued to launch their attacks at each other, not content until one of them gave in. At this point, Ludmila had rushed in and rescued everyone else, relying on her speed to keep her safe.
With the two fighters unyielding in their bout, no one was quite sure what to do.
Ludmila returned to the side of Queen Katalina, shrugging her shoulders at her powerlessness to do anything. The Queen herself was at a loss too, as she was busy maintaining the barrier that contained the collateral damage.
“Shall I freeze them?” Cornelius asked in her guy form, holding her hand up to put the entire ring on ice.
“That’s probably best for now. Then, the ‘two of them’ can deal with it after the ice starts thawing,” added Eryn who was sitting next to her.
Within moments, icicles started developing around the outside of the ring as Katalina made the magic tool shrink the barrier. The frost continued to encroach upon the exposed arena, until there was hardly any room for the two to maneuver.
With a flick of the switch, the barrier popped, and a wave of ice swallowed the center, creating two ‘Masked Ice Pops’ suspended in mid-blow.
A silence engulfed the arena, ending the third preliminary round. Eryn sighed at the silly antics that Pietro and Lau got themselves into since they ran into each other after their long-awaited reunion. Even now, they possessed a harsh rivalry stemming from their past.
Eryn was glad that she didn’t participate in this tournament. She looked over at Cornelius, who wasn’t part of the competitors either. Given their high renown, there was really no reason for them to participate. They were known throughout the kingdom already, one as the Valkyrie and the other as the King’s Watchdog. Doing well in a tournament such as this would give them no merit.
Similarly, it wouldn’t help the standing of Marquis Deggendorf, but the bulky man was eager for a fight regardless. Even more, he was looking forward to a man-to-man bout against the famous physical fighters that he couldn’t fight in prior tournaments. He couldn’t fight them on the same terms, despite his impressive physique.
“I guess I’ll slowly thaw them out…,” Eryn started to say, but then, the ice started shaking and cracking where the masked fighters were. “I guess not.”
“Do not worry. ‘They’ have been notified.” Katalina suppressed a giggle.
In the next moment, the ice around Juggler Mask’s arms shattered, freeing them from captivity. Likewise, the ice from Butler Mask’s sword and legs crumbled like glass shards. It only took mere moments for the two of them to shrug off the rest of their entrapment.
The two of them reared back and gathered mana around them.
“The Land’s Howl-“
Crying the names of their signature attacks, they were suddenly interrupted by dull thuds of frying pans against their skulls. Out of nowhere, two women, also in masks, materialized and each struck them with the heavy cooking instrument.
“Show’s over. Now that Cooking Mask is here.”
“It’s time to wrap up. Courtesy of Cleaning Mask.”
The two masked ladies dragged their husbands off the arena, much to the surprise of the entire crowd. Finally, a few kids in the stands stood up and cheered, breaking the silence.
“Woah, did you see that? How they popped up and went ‘whoosh’ and ‘bam’!”
“Daddy! I want a mask, too!”
Not long afterward, masked children playing hero could be seen frolicking in the streets, making such toys a hot commodity item.
But for now, there was still the fourth preliminary round to get through.